Last week, the Los Angeles Times published a piece by Frank Shyong about the imminent closure and relocation of two of Chinatown‘s last remaining Chinese markets. On the same day, Jared Cohee published a piece about Holland International Market in Bellflower for Eat the World LA. Both got me thinking a bit about the role international markets serve.
When I first visited Los Angeles, Chinatown was one of the neighborhoods I considered moving to. It appealed to me for several reasons. There are, of course, its romanticized Chinoiserie: pagodas, dragons, paper lanterns, &c. There’s also Chinatown’s enviable location — walking distance from Bunker Hill, the Historic Core, Elysian Park, Lincoln Heights, and Little Tokyo. It’s also a very vibrant, walkable neighborhood itself. Aside from the mid-rise Cathay Manor, most Chinatown residences seem to occupy the second floor above ground-floor businesses. Those businesses include a number of Chinese restaurants and — back in the 1990s when I first visited — several Chinese markets. This was, I thought, to be expected — and I expected that if I settled in Chinatown I’d mostly eat Chinese cuisine and prepare myself meals with ingredients procured in the neighborhood markets.
I didn’t end up moving to Chinatown but I go there often — sometimes just passing through on Metro‘s 96 Line. I was somewhat surprised, then, when in 2013 Walmart opened a supermarket in Chinatown and most local journalists wrote about it as if it was the first supermarket in Chinatown. When I listed the pre-existing markets in the comment section on one site, the replies I received left me with the distinct impression that many of Chinatown’s newer residents would never entertain setting foot in a Chinese market. I assume that this attitude didn’t result from an anti-Chinese sentiment. After all, what kind of Sinophobe would move to Chinatown? My impression is that most authenticity-obsessed foodies are more than happy to be fed Chinese food (as long as it’s authentic!) but far less interested in cooking it themselves. Food porn and food writing focus almost entirely on restaurants and chefs — not grocers and groceries.
Unlike Chinatown, I never seriously entertained living in Bellflower — or anywhere in Southeast Los Angeles for that matter — the sprawling suburban region between suburban San Gabriel Valley, suburban North Orange County, and slightly-less suburban Eastside of South Los Angeles. Even when I still owned a car — a relic of my relocation from Iowa — I never saw much appeal in the car-dependent suburbs. I have no children so “good schools” isn’t an enticement. I’m not eager to be the victim of crime but never felt sufficiently unsafe to flee the city.
For many immigrants and refugees, on the other hand, the eventual relocation to the suburbs is the goal — an important step in the path toward assimilation. Not-wholly assimilated immigrants and their offspring are, to me, responsible for some of the only things that make suburbia appealing, namely the businesses, restaurants, and markets operated by them and patronized by them. Bellflower, for example, was formerly part of the heavily Dutch pre-World War II dairylands of the region. Neighboring cities Cerritos, Cypress, and La Palma were formerly known, respectively, as Dairy Valley, Dairy City, and Dairyland. Thanks to their colonial relationship, a lot of the region’s Indonesians still live in the area and — in some cases — operate Indonesian restaurants.
As far as I know, neither the Dutch nor Indonesians eschewed concentrated enclaves, instead choosing to diffuse across the mostly-enclave-less suburbs. Enclaves, though, are rarely much more static than their residents. Chinatown, for example, used to be centered east of today’s Chinatown. Before it was Chinatown, it was Little Italy. As Italian-Angelenos assimilated, they moved into the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys — both of which are still home to numerous Italian restaurants and markets of a similar vintage. Before Little Italy, there was Sonoratown and French Town, whose residents, like the Italians and Chinese after them, mostly — but not entirely — absorbed into mainstream culture.
Not every international market proves to be the seed of an ethnic enclave — but most ethnic enclaves sprout from them. The origins of Koreatown, Little Brazil, Little India, Little Seoul, and Thai Town can all be traced to the opening of a grocery store stocked with a mix of imported items and the sort of produce called for by the cooking traditions of the immigrants and refugees they are designed to serve. In several cases, a restaurant was/is attached to the market. Sometimes the markets are more restaurants than grocery stores — with their identity as a market in some instances resting solely on a single shelf filled with specialty items.
It’s also not completely clear to me what makes a market “international.” Gelson’s, Ralph’s, Stater Brothers, and Trader Joes were all founded in Southern California and all carry imported products like peas and beer from the Netherlands, bananas grown in Guatemala, wine from Australia, and cheese from New Zealand. None are typically considered to be “international” markets, though, probably because their bread and butter, so to speak, are products like bread, butter, sugary breakfast cereal, corn puffs, frozen dinners, cow’s milk, grape jelly, soft drinks, and processed meats on which mainstream America subsists. Meanwhile, products like Tapatio‘s salsa picante, Huy Fong‘s sriracha, and El Pato‘s spicy tomato sauce — despite originating in Los Angeles — are found in their international sections.
Many local “international” chains, similarly, were founded right here in the Southland: Gaju Market/가주마켓, Hong Kong Supermarket/香港超级市场, Northgate Gonzalez Markets, and Super King were all born in Metro Los Angeles — unlike not-international competitors like Albertsons, Food 4 Less, and Whole Foods. Whether or not a market’s founder was an immigrant doesn’t seem to matter. For example, Armenian immigrant John Berberian‘s supermarket chain, Jon’s, is also known as Jons International Marketplace, and caters to Armenians and Russians. The similarly named Von’s — founded by Copenhagen-born Charles Von der Ahe — is not an international marketplace, catering as it does to shoppers of no specific ethnicity (certainly not Danish).
While not entirely sure what makes a market an international one, I nevertheless decided to attempt to map all of them in Los Angeles and Orange counties (and a few beyond). It proved a difficult undertaking for several reasons. No one else has bothered to do it which meant I had to conduct research. Representing a market’s international identity with a flag is not without issue. Many international markets were founded by and serve a people who may reject the flag of the current regime, the existence of which may account in more than a few cases for their migration. Is it really fair to represent a Jewish market with an Israeli flag, when the ancestors of those who run them may’ve left the Levant thousands of years before the foundation of that country? What flag best represents a Persian Jewish market, for that matter — or a Hoa Chinese one? The focus of establishments changes over the years and as owners as ownership changes hands; thus establishments with “carnicería,” “bakery,” or “deli” in the name often seem to fit the definition of a market — whilst some establishments billed as markets in their current incarnations stock little more than alcohol, cigarettes, and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
As maddening as mapping Metro Los Angeles’s international markets proved to be, I think it was worth the trouble. They reflect diversity more honestly than the architectural aesthetics of an ethnic enclave. They indicate a depth that goes deeper than the tourist-internationalism of Epcot Center‘s World Showcase. Even when they vanish, the memory of them serves as a reminder of our local ethnic culture and history.
Final note: I undoubtedly missed a lot of markets, which I’d love for readers to point out in the comments. I’m sure I’ve got a few of the flags wrong too. It was particularly hard for me to determine whether an ethnic-Chinese market was more accurately mainland Chinese, Hong Konger, or Taiwanese. I’m sure I missed many altogether — and markets which have closed are also worth inclusion. Corrections in this or any other regard, as always, are much appreciated.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.